Living in the Eighties

In addition to writing my Thirty Years On series here and listening to my share of 1988 all over again, I’ve been listening to Sirius XM’s 1st Wave station the last few days.  This comes to absolutely no surprise to any of you, of course.  I’m an Eighties kid.  I spent that entire decade in front of the radio making mixtapes, in front of the tube glued to MTV, and Killing Music By Home Taping.

This means I remember a lot of the weird, wonderful and horrible things that went on in the world then.  In a way I’m kind of happy that I’m able to wax nostalgic — not to say ‘it was so much better then’ (it was definitely different, sure, but I wouldn’t say better) but to be able to see the parallels between then and now.

The reign of a useless, mindless, comic relief President (I say, despite stomach churning); the shadow of Russia and the Cold War looming just over our shoulders; the big and small wars taking place in various corners of the world; the groups of whacked-out conspiracy theorists, the fervent believers of pseudo-religions, and the willingly passive followers of evangelism; the instability of unregulated banking; the sexism of the Alpha Male; the terrorist attacks and the plane crashes; the Young Republicans and their drive to Win At Any Cost; American uberpatriotism and self-assigned exceptionalism; the classic situations of jock versus nerd and all its permutations; and of course the punks and nonconformists who were just plain fucking tired of getting broadsided with all of this and refused to play those games anymore.

I try to be positive about it all, to be honest.  There are days where I need to turn off the internet and take a dandelion break, or pull out my journal and bleed out some of my anxiety or frustration.  I don’t become blissfully ignorant about it all, at least not like I did when I was a teenager more interested in music than what went on in the world.  I merely look at it from a different perspective.

I get frustrated that this is all happening again — sometimes with freakish accuracy — but I’ve lived through it already, so I kind of know what’s coming and what to expect.  Because of this I’m not as pessimistic.  It’s all aggravating, yes.  It truly does piss me off that so many get hit with the shrapnel.  But somehow, at some point, it *will* get better if we *make* it get better.

We did it before, we can do it again.

Thirty Years On: Additional 1988 Albums

In going through this project, I came upon a few extra albums where I’d assigned the wrong release date, or titles that I missed due to space.  Here’s a quick 1988-So-Far addendum of further releases that are well worth mentioning.

Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, released 2 February. My first experience with this man, interestingly enough, was a punch line from an episode of The Young Ones. Regardless, over the years I went out and bought some used copies of his albums and realized that he really was an amazing songwriter. This album does sound a bit dated, even for the time of its release, but it contains quite a few of his best known songs.

Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven, released 29 February. I’d been familiar with this band thanks to their classic “Sweat Loaf” (you know, the “Satan! Satan! Satan!” song). One of those bands that was just so weird and noisy that you either loved them or hated them. WAMH loved the hell out of this band.

The Mekons, So Good It Hurts, released ?? March. I’d hear “Ghosts of American Astronauts” on WMDK and WAMH quite often in the spring of 1988, and the Mekons were always considered one of those ‘must have in your collection’ bands. I finally added them decades later and now I understand why.

Monty Python, The Final Rip-Off, released 22 March. Given that MTV had brought the Pythons to their main programming a year or so previous (and that by 1988 it had become part of the late Sunday night line-up alongside The Young Ones/The Comic Strip and 120 Minutes), a quick and obvious cash-in album was needed. All your favorite silly sketches, all in one place!

The Primitives, Lovely, released 22 March. An absolute classic of a power-pop album and a massive favorite of fans and critics alike. I nearly wore out my copy of this album! “Crash” got heavy airplay on all the college stations, 120 Minutes, and still gets played on 80s stations to this day. Highly recommended.

Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, released 19 April. Rap didn’t get too much play on the stations I listened to at the time, but I was well aware of it, thanks to MTV and a few of my friends who got into it. PE and NWA were the two bands you followed if you wanted to go past the silly or party-oriented hip-hop and start checking out the more serious stuff. I was always impressed by PE’s sound production and how confrontational and intelligent their lryics were.

The Dead Milkmen, Beelzebubba, released ?? May. The 80s had a great wave of goofy and nerdy punk bands that wrote ridiculous yet catchy (and often quotable) tunes, and the Milkmen were probably the most successful at the time, thanks to “Punk Rock Girl” and “Bitchin’ Camaro”.

Ramones, Mania, release 31 May. Quite a few bands decided to release a greatest hits compilation in 1988, and this one’s perfect for your collection…it pretty much contains every hit and deep track you know (and some you don’t) up to that time, released as a double album.

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I’m sure I’ve still missed a few, but I think this fills in quite a few entries that I missed the first time around!

Thirty Years On: June 1988

June 1988:  Junior year is over and done, and after a week or so of relaxing and forgetting about all the frustration and whatnot of school, it’s into Summer Job territory.  I don’t exactly remember which job I had at the time (I’m thinking the supermarket job, if I’m not mistaken), but I know I still had the radio station position on the weekends, and I’d stick with that one at least until the end of senior year.  I’d meet up with Nate and Chris for an occasional Flying Bohemians session, and the various members of our circle of friends would sometimes go on roadtrips down to Amherst and Northampton.  I’d stay up late listening to music, reading, writing, and practicing my bass and guitar playing.  It was a summer of creativity, and one of keeping in touch with friends before they left in a few months.

There weren’t too many exciting releases for this month for my collection, so I ended up spending a lot of time listening to my own collection, or listening to WRSI or WMDK. I also focused a bit more on making more compilations, inspiring Chris to start making them as well.

Compilation: Cimmerian Music, created early June. The third of the three original new mixtapes, this one worked the best. Essentially a sixty-minute tape filled with quiet, moody college rock to be listened to at 1AM when everyone else has gone to bed, this one featured many bands you’d expect: The Cure, Felt, Love and Rockets, and the Sisters of Mercy. Added fun was Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver”, an oldie but goodie from my childhood that I’d been using as a ‘theme song’ for a story I was writing at the time.

Compilation: Under the Ivy: Unavailable B-Sides, created early June. I started this one soon after the above mix as part of my next wave, and it was inspired by the cassette version of The Cure’s Standing on a Beach from 1986. It’s all single b-sides that were sitting around in my collection that I happened to enjoy, though the mix does get thin near the end. I would make a second version of this title twelve years later in the summer of 2000.

Compilation: Remix I, created early June. This one didn’t hold up well at all over the years (literally — I’d used a crappy low-budget blank tape for this one), and also suffers the same as the above, with too many questionable track choices. I think it was with this one that I realized that maybe trying to make a themed mixtape wasn’t working at all, and that a true mix with varied sounds and styles would work better. I’d return to that idea a few months later, with much better results.

Voice of the Beehive, Let It Bee, released ?? June. Poppy and quirky with just a hint of folk and country thrown in (they kind of reminded me of a lot of bands from the Athens GA scene, but with a flashier presence). This one’s great fun, with a lot of catchy riffs and sassy lyrics. I got to see them live later on in the year at UMass Amherst with a few friends!

Big Audio Dynamite, Tighten Up Vol 88, released ?? June. Mick Jones’ third outing with his post-Clash band was probably their most accessible and groove-oriented, and was a critical and fan favorite. 120 Minutes had “Just Play Music” on heavy rotation for pretty much the rest of the year!

Bongwater, Double Bummer, released 7 June. I wouldn’t hear this for another few months when WAMH came back on the air, but when it did, quite a few DJs loved it. Alternately weird, funny, psychedelic, and fantastic.  I still remember being surprised when I found out its lead singer, Ann Magnuson, was also a well-established Hollywood actress.

The Style Council, Confessions of a Pop Group, released 20 June. Paul Weller’s post-Jam band was one that you either loved or loathed, depending on how much of a rabid fan of The Jam that you were.  During this particular summer they released a moody jazz album that made quite a few fans scratch their heads, but in retrospect it’s actually quite a lovely record.

Information Society, Information Society, released 21 June. Nerdy synth-pop laden with Star Trek samples and incredibly catchy melodies. They’re primarily known for their debut single (above), but the entire album is excellent. [This was yet another ‘borrowed’ album from the radio station, though I believe Chris got his mitts on it before I could! I dubbed it from him over the summer but bought my own copy on cassette a few months later.]

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Next Up: July 1988!

And for a little while, I was falling in love

Magnet recently posted the news that the original four members of A Flock of Seagulls will be releasing Ascension later this month, an album containing semi-symphonic reworkings of their classic early-80s songs. I like what I’ve heard so far, so I’m curious about how the rest of it will sound.

It also got me thinking about the ‘Science Fiction in Music’ panel that I ran at BayCon the other weekend. My idea was to focus mostly on the 90s forward, but I had to at least mention that the 80s were quite full of similar recordings by New Wave and electronic bands such as Duran Duran, ELO, Depeche Mode, Thomas Dolby, and so on.

I was 11 when A Flock of Seagulls’ debut album came out, and I loved the quirkiness of it, that it was so different from the classic rock I’d been listening to for years before.  It was one of the many albums I repeatedly borrowed from our local library.  It sounded amazingly fresh and adventurous.  Sure, it might sound a bit aged now, but considering that synthesizers were usually confined to prog rock virtuosos at the time, this was something brand new. Newer, cheaper keyboards and synths were just coming to the market and new bands — a lot of them based in the UK or Europe — grabbed them fast.

It was timed perfectly with the rise of MTV as a major force in the music industry. “I Ran” became a staple on the channel, even despite its ridiculously low-budget effects (turntable platform, lots of shiny plastic, and a few full-length mirrors) and bizarre hairdos and fashion. It was completely unlike the bro-rock universe of Loverboy, REO Speedwagon and 38 Special, and nowhere near the heavy sounds of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple or Whitesnake.  But it was catchy as hell!  The band also managed to snag a late-night position at MTV’s New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1982. The audience was probably a little too plastered and/or high to be paying much attention, but as a young kid, I thought it was the coolest thing.

Not bad for a concept album about an alien abduction.

Postscript: Mind you, this was a full four years before I ‘discovered’ college radio in spring 1986. During the first year or so of that listening era, I also discovered that a lot of the quirky New Wave stuff that MTV played in those early years was in fact part of this alternative universe by way of being part of the post-punk umbrella. I did a LOT of catching up during that time, digging for those albums and singles, including more albums from this band.

 

Thirty Years On: May 1988

May 1988: A good portion of my closest friends are graduating quite shortly, and will be taking off in various directions for their college careers.  Thus starts the era of me being a moody bastard for about six years.  Meanwhile, after about five years of recording songs off the radio and creating my own proto-mixtapes, I finally decide it’s time for me to create my own mixes straight from my own growing collection.  I call them ‘compilations’ instead of ‘mixtapes’ because it sounds more professional, considering how detailed I get in creating them.  Thirty years later I’m still making them, digitally.

Wire, A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, released ?? May. The second album in their ‘beat combo’ era, the band moves closer to their eventual electronic experimentation, using samples, loops, and treated instruments. I played the hell out of this album for a good couple of years after it came out.

Colin Newman, It Seems, released ?? May. In tandem with the above, Wire co-lead singer Newman dropped an even more electronic and experimental album. While the Wire album is more rock oriented, this one’s for sitting back and listening.

Heavenly Bodies, Celestial, released ?? May. A somewhat obscure album featuring vocalist and 4AD friend Caroline Seaman (who would pop up on a few This Mortal Coil albums) and a few ex-Dead Can Dance members, it’s a proto-darkwave album with a moody groove to it. “Rains On Me” got some serious airplay on a lot of the college stations when it came out.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nothing Wrong, released ?? May. The noise-punks from Leeds released an excellent album of sludgy, growling alt-rock that might not have been to everyone’s tastes, but those who did like it (like me) absolutely loved it.

Living Colour, Vivid, released 3 May. Loud, abrasive, political, funky, humorous, and absolutely amazing. Lots has already been said about this album, and it’s all true. I got to see these guys at UMass Amherst in 1989 (it was part of MTV’s college campus tour, with the Godfathers opening up), and they put on one hell of a great show.

Depeche Mode, “Little 15” single, released 16 May. The last single from 1987’s Music for the Masses. It’s also one of my favorite tracks from it due to its amazing dynamics, starting off quiet and delicate and ending up Wagnerian and bombastic. It’s one of those songs you need to hear in headphones to get the full power of it.

Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses, released 16 May. It took me years to finally buy this album, but I remember the above track getting played incessantly on WMDK and the other AOR stations in the area. A fun and irresistibly catchy tune. The rest of the album is great too!

Compilation: Stentorian Music, created 20 May. The first of many compilations was an ongoing experiment of a themed mix; this one featured songs from groups like The Sisters of Mercy, Love and Rockets, The Cure, and The Screaming Blue Messsiahs among others, and designed to be played loud. It was put on a 60 minute tape and it came out reasonably well, considering.  Not bad for a first try.

Compilation: Preternatural Synthetics, created 20 May. Yeah, even then I knew I was getting a bit ridiculous with the titles, but it was just something for fun, after my titling the old radio mixtapes with corny ‘Love & Rock & Roll’ titles. This one was a 90-minute tape featuring all synth and/or electronic-sounding bands, such as Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Depeche Mode, and so on. It’s a perky mix, and rather enjoyable!

The Timelords, “Doctorin’ the Tardis” single, released 23 May. A ridiculous single from the KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu/JAMMs/etc. gang.  Mixing Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” and the Doctor Who theme, it’s one of those earworms that the college crowd loved.

Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, released 24 May. Another college rock band that went from indie (Pitch-a-Tent) to major (Virgin) in 1988, this record was indeed beloved by a quite a few fans, both old and new.  I particularly loved this single, which also got a lot of play on the AOR stations.

Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” single, released 31 May. Say what you will about his current nutjob shenanigans, his early post-Smiths records were fantastic. This second single from Viva Hate was another ‘borrowed’ single that popped up at the radio station I worked at. I soon fell in love with the gorgeous deep cut “Will Never Marry”, which would end up on quite a few of my future compilations.

The Sugarcubes, Life’s Too Good, released 31 May. This album was an instant hit for the college crowd, with its eclectic mix of often bizarre lyrics, infectious melodies and the balance of its two lead singers: the pixie-like Bjork and its weirdo horn player, Einar. Not to mention its dayglo album cover! Another band I got to see at UMass Amherst around that time.

Next Up: June 1988!

Favorite Albums: Concrete Blonde, ‘Concrete Blonde’

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I’m trying to remember when I first heard of this band, because I heard of them from multiple places at the same time.  I remember seeing the advertisement for their debut album popping up in all the music magazines.  I remember “Still in Hollywood” getting play on the early episodes of 120 Minutes (it’s the first song of the first episode I ever taped) and occasionally hearing it on the radio.  I remember seeing a lot of positive reviews of it from both journalists and other musicians.

Concrete Blonde was one of those LA-based bands that flew way under the radar in the mid 80s…a critical and industry favorite but never quite hit the big time. They weren’t as punk as X, and they certainly weren’t glam like most of that scene’s metal bands, either. They were an eclectic mix of hard rock and blues, with a bit of country and folk thrown in. Led by bassist and singer Johnette Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey (he and his brother Earle had previously worked with fellow LA weirdos, Sparks), they had turned their previous band Dream 6 into something unique; it was the hard sound of the back streets of LA. It wasn’t about violence or degradation, though…it was about trying to survive, one day at a time.

This was one of those albums that I dubbed off one of my friends early on, but I ended up with my own copy soon after. I loved Johnette’s smoky voice with all its occasional cracks and growls — it was like hearing a more world-weary Ann Wilson — and I loved the ragged melodies.  It was the sound of exhaustion, the sound of refusing to give up even when the world was bearing down on your shoulders.

And I especially loved their cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, which turned the song from a warning about the music industry to something more sinister.

At the same time, it could be beautifully delicate and tender, such as with “Make Me Cry”, the only accompaniment being Mankey’s acoustic guitar strumming and the occasional overdubbed harmony.

And it was all bracketed by the song “True” — a vocal and an instrumental version — that veered into a bluesy almost Springsteen-like ‘we’ve got to get out of here’ that sets the entire tone for the album.

This isn’t an album that I’d put on repeat or have stuck in my player for weeks on end; this is an album that I occasionally pull out to savor and enjoy. (I did, however, have it on repeat for about a month in the summer of 1989 when I was working for the DPW. It fit my then-current mood of wanting to escape my hometown quite nicely.)  It does feel ever so slightly dated, mostly due to its production; the drums are all flat and there’s a distinct lack of low end, which is a pity considering Johnette really hammers that bass on this record. It’s still a wonderful album and a great example of mid-to-late 80s college rock.

Years later when I started writing Can’t Find My Way Home for the first time (this was around 2009, I believe), I found myself returning to this album as one of a handful of record that fit the mood of the story. And now that I’ve resurrected that writing project again, it’s returned to my playlist.  It’s still one of my favorite albums after all this time.

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You may of course remember their eventual rise to minor fame with 1990’s Bloodletting album and their radio hit “Joey”, or their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” for the film Pump Up the Volume from the same year, but they never quite achieved that same level of success after that. They put out a handful of albums between 1986 and 1994, and two more in 2002 and 2004, and they’re all worth checking out.

Thirty Years On: April 1988

April 1988 will of course be the month when The Flying Bohemians were born. I’d floated the idea of starting a band of sorts sometime in March if I’m not mistaken, but it wasn’t until the following month that Chris and Nathane and I made any serious plans about it.  It would be after their spring break trip, so the band would have its auspicious debut jam session on the 22nd of that year.  Meanwhile, I’d started songwriting in earnest, pulling out lyrics old and new that could possibly used for our future sessions.  I still had a hell of a lot to learn at that point, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Meanwhile, here’s some of my favorite tunage that was getting play both on college and AOR radio, and on my turntable and tape deck.

Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick, released ?? April. Third album from the geekiest synth musician out there. It wasn’t a big seller at all, but it was definitely a fun listen. It’s got some of his goofiest songs on there.

Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack, released ?? April. I’d picked up this soundtrack simply because it’s got an excellent line-up: MARRS, New Order, Depeche Mode, Prince, and Bryan Ferry, to name a few. The movie hasn’t aged well at all, nor has the book (though its unconventional use of telling the story entirely in second-person present tense POV did open my eyes quite a bit as a burgeoning writer at the time), but the soundtrack is still quite excellent.

The Wonder Stuff, “Give Give Give Me More More More” single, released ?? April. A ridiculously fun and witty British band from the Midlands, these guys were a listener’s favorite on college radio almost immediately upon arriving in the US. It would be another few months before their album would drop, but this was an excellent teaser.

Joe Jackson, Live 1980/86, released ?? April. This is an excellent live cross-section of his hits, including an absolutely amazing reinterpretation of his US hit “Steppin’ Out”, turned into a slow, elegiac jazz piece here. I remember ordering this from Columbia House back then just for that one track alone.

Graham Parker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, released ?? April. WMDK and other AOR stations loved playing Parker’s stuff over the years, and this one got a lot of play as well. I used to love this particular track quite a bit.

In-D, “Virgin in-D Sky’s” single, released ?? April. Ah, Belgian techno…you never quite caught on here in the states, but I loved you just the same. Two club DJs from Antwerp got together and recorded three dance singles (and calling the style ‘New Beat’), and this was the one that somehow caught on with college radio.

John Adams (composer), Nixon in China, released 5 April. I remember this one coming out because it was such an unconventional subject for an opera. That, and Main Street Records down in Northampton had it set up on their endcap at the front of the store, so whenever we walked in, the first thing we’d see was the box set. It would be a few years before I’d finally give it a listen, and many more years until I finally saw it live (with Adams present, as he’s a Bay Area local!). It’s a strange one, sure, but it’s quite fascinating.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Barbed Wire Kisses, released 18 April. The J&MC’s first collection of b-sides and rarities (they’d release quite a few over the course of their career), it’s an interesting mix that showcases just how far they’d come, from their early feedback screech to their sludgy alt-rock. [Also, the first of a few albums that were ‘borrowed’ from the radio station I worked at then…I mean, was an AM, low-watt, lite-pop, satellite-fed station ever going to play this? I highly doubted it.]

Erasure, The Innocents, released 18 April. I absolutely adored this album when it came out, and “Chains of Love” became one of my favorite tracks of the year to to that point. Another band given a lot of love and promotion by Sire (thanks again, Seymour Stein!), this was heavily played not just on 120 Minutes but during regular daytime MTV. Classic album worth having. [Also, another ‘borrowed’ album. Heh.]

Soul Asylum, Hang Time, released 25 April. One of many punk bands from Minneapolis, these guys were often seen as the slightly less inebriated little brothers of the Replacements, but they rocked just as hard and recorded solid albums right alongside them. They’d finally get their share of major fame in the mid-90s, but this album — their first for a major label — was the one that pricked up the ears of the college radio crowds.

X, Live at the Whisky a Go Go (On the Fabulous Sunset Strip), released 29 April. Another live album that got a lot of airplay on the college radio and AOR stations, it’s an excellent mix of all their classic underground favorites. This was actually the first X album I owned (again, thanks to Columbia House) and “Hungry Wolf” soon became one of my favorite tracks of theirs.

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Up next: May 1988!